Light rail in low and medium density cities: the case of Canberra
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Light rail in low and medium density cities: the case of Canberra



My presentation at the Transportation Research Board (2009) in Washington, DC.

My presentation at the Transportation Research Board (2009) in Washington, DC.



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  • Great presentation that neatly steps through some of the issues around LRT and Canberra's public transport future.
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Light rail in low and medium density cities: the case of Canberra Light rail in low and medium density cities: the case of Canberra Presentation Transcript

  • Density and LRT: thecase of Canberra,AustraliaCameron GordonUniversity of CanberraFaculty of Business and GovernmentJohn J. Marchi Visiting Scholar in Public PolicyCity University of New York (2009)Principal InvestigatorUTRC Region 2 (New York)
  • Basic Research MotivationWhat is the critical mass of population sizeand density, economic activity and financialbase beyond which stuctural transitalternatives (i.e. bus rapid transit (BRT) andlight-rail transit (LRT) become viable for agiven service area?This paper examines the issues of servinglow and medium density communities withlight rail, using Canberra as a case study.
  • Motivation – part 2 What should an LRT inCanberra look like if it is tobe financially, operationallyand environmentallysustainable? What might this imply forstructural transit in otherlow- to medium-densitylocations?
  • A note on structural transitAlthough this paper focuses on LRT, the planningemphasis should be on the full range of structuraltransit options, loosely defined here as any transitwith a significant fixed capital component.
  • Three basic questions for structuraltransit planners? 1. What is the likely cost ofthe transit alternative, bothcapital and operating? 2. What is the proposedservice area density (emphasison service area)? 3. Is the „operatingenvironment‟ (e.g. ridersocieconomic characteristics)amenable to transit?
  • 1a. Costs -- capital A meta-review of literature on capital costs ofLRT, focussing on North American systems,estimated that the average capital cost per routemile was $26.4 million (all figures in 1990 USdollars).The range for this capital cost was substantialhowever, from $9.4 million to $90.19 millionacross LRT systems. These average capitalcosts were more than twice as high as those forbus rapid transit (BRT) but lower than those fortraditional heavy-rail metro systems. (Zhang 2009)
  • 1b. Costs -- operatingOnce built, the general rule-of-thumb is that LRThas lower operating costs because it offers higherpassenger capacity per unit labour cost.However Zhang notes that per revenue-mile, LRTactually has higher operating costs as comparedto BRT.Other measures, such as cost per rider and costper mile often reverse this relationship.The key might be revenue collected per mile:LRT costs more to build than BRT and obviouslymuch more than regular buses so if it fails toattract enough riders, or if fares are set too low,this would push up the revenue-mile operatingcosts.
  • 2. DensityIn general the threshold for a viable LRT is seenas 9 dwellings per acre (equivalent to around2223 people per square kilometre assuming 4people per dwelling).This is as compared to a 4 dwellings per acre(988 people per square kilometre) threshold fortraditional bus service (Zhang 2009, and authorcalculations).Density thresholds for BRT and regular buses areobviously below this, HRT above.
  • Density pitfalls? Two very important points about density.1. Density of what? These are population densitymeasures but as or more important might beeconomic activity measures. As an extremeexample, a very dense population where allleisure and work takes place at home would notgenerate sufficient trips to support an LRT. 2. Density of where? Often transit planningstudies take existing boundaries to measuredensity. What is really important is density alongthe proposed service area.The key concept: ridership density, not populationdensity.
  • 3. Operating environment This is a catch-all term that includes factors suchas fiscal capacity, governance institutions,socioeconomy, physical geography/topographyand individual attitudes towards modes.If cost and density can be considered to benecessary conditions for LRT adoption, theseother factors can be seen as the sufficientconditions that tip a community into or out of suchadoption.For example many dense cities in developingcountries do not have the fiscal capacity to buildan LRT even though the fundamental economicsmight support adoption of such a mode.
  • The case of Canberra, Australia Canberra is one of a but a few cities in the worldto be completely planned and created as anational capital.Canberra was created after the 1901 Federationas a compromise between potential sites andleading Australian cities Sydney and Melbourne. To contain the city a new administrative unitcalled the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) wascreated, being equivalent to an Australian Statethough without its full powers and much smaller ingeographic size.
  • A visionThe Australian government sponsored aninternational competition for design of the new cityin 1911.The winner of that competition was an Americanarchitect named Walter Burley Griffin, a formercollaborator of Frank Lloyd Wright, who came upwith a design with streets organized along radialarterials (similar in concept to the Washington, DCplan), and an artificial lake separating north andsouth sides of the city.
  •  Griffin did not just devise a static master plan.He also considered how the new city shouldgrow and adopted a modular approach in whichsmall local communities, called suburbs, wouldbe the basic building block outward from thecore downtown (called “Civic”). Each suburb was designed to be relativelyself-sustaining, with residents supplied by a setof local shops for essentials. Suburbs would be connected by a tram whichGriffin laid out rights-of-way and even a serviceyard.
  • Canberra today The overall area of the ACT amounts to 2,358square kilometres.In 2006 the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS)estimated the population of the ACT to be333,940.The ACT is surrounded by territory of NSW.Canberra is the major population center in thearea, though its next door NSW neighbor ofQueanbeyan has an estimated population ofapproximately 36,000.
  • Population growth From a population of only around 10,000 in1939, and with a renewed commitment in the mid-1950s by the Commonwealth government to fullydevelop the ACT and locate of the public servicethere, the city grew to approximately 50,000 by1960, to 200,000 by 1976 and continuing to addanother 70,000 by 1988.The remaining 70,000 residents have beenadded since then and growth is projected tocontinue at about 1% per annum through 2030(ABS 2008).
  • Transit in Canberra today Canberra has relied solely on traditional busesfor passenger mass transit currently beingadministered by an agency known as ACTION.In 2001, cars carried 83 per cent of work trips,with public transport carrying 7 per cent, walking 4per cent and cycling 2 per cent.Compared to Australian averages Canberransdrove and cycled more, walked about the sameand used public transport less.It should be noted, though, that the overallAustralian usage of transit is not especially high,around 10 per cent (ABS 2008).
  • A sudden political shift Although Griffin called for a tram inhis original plan, the lack of financeduring the Great Depression derailed it(no pun intended). Since then successive ACTgovernments have been againstanything other than bus service beingused for transit. This stance suddenly changed withthe election of a national governmentof the same party as that of the ACT;the national government put asidemoney specifically for localinfrastructure competitive grants.Kevin Rudd,Prime MinisterOf Australia (LaborParty)
  • Politics ACT Chief Minister, Jon Stanhope,decided to put forward a proposal to anew federal government body calledInfrastructure Australia (IA) for $A1 billionto fund an LRT in the city. Stanhope was facing his own re-election in late 2008 and saw this as away of making his long-standinggovernment seem fresh. Perhaps it worked. Stanhope retainsgovernment but in a minority governmentsupported by a resurgent Greens party.
  • Canberra‟s current LRT proposal The ACT government has submitted a proposal for anLRT to IA. This proposal does spell out some general potentialroutes and some basic engineering outlines, based onprior local government studies. A full engineering study, with detailed cost estimates,has not yet been done. The ACT proposal has made it through a first-roundshort-list process but has not yet been approved.
  •  The ACT proposal consists of a genericsystem of 54.4 kilometres,108 stations(56 stops) roughly 1 km apart, runningalong the centre-line. Stations were of astandard design with extended curbs toform low platforms, and equipped withshelter overhangs, ticketing machines,electronic information boards and otherbasic passenger facilities. The majorstructures to be built include threebridges, two rail undercrossings, tworamps, and one underpass, along with avariety of other minor edifices. Vehicletypes were assumed to be ALSTOMCitadis low floor trams with a 40passenger seatings and a crush load of197. Rough estimates of capital costs:approximately $A2 billion and operatingcosts of approximately $A1.2 billion (bothundiscounted) over the project life periodof 30 years
  • Is the ACT a good LRT candidate?1. population size and density The official population of the ACT in 2006was 333,940. Its average population density at the timewas 142.1 people per square kilometre? Does this stack up for an LRT?Using average population density, Canberrais clearly well below the minimumbenchmarks for LRT or even BRT.
  • but...maybe it isAccording to ABS estimates for 2006, a majorityof Canberra suburbs have population densitiesgreater than 1,000 people per square kilometre(the actual count is 58).More than a few, such as Braddon, Turner, Page,Scullin, and Banks, have densities greater than2,000, sometimes well above 2,000. (Kingston isjust short with 1975.3). Palmerston has thehighest population density in the ACT at 3038.3(ABS 2008).
  • The planning dimension Moreover, because of the citys long planningtradition and continued planning, these densitiestend to fall along a north-south corridor runningthrough the centre of the city. Although many of these current suburb densitiesare still below rule-of-thumb LRT thresholds, muchof the planned growth is happening there,especially with respect to infilling the Civic core. In many respects Canberra has been practicingTOD for some time now. Canberra is a good example of how averagepopulation densities might be misleading.
  • 2. Canberra LRT costs: capitalBenchmarking, and using Zhangs high endestimate for LRT would entail an average unitcapital cost of $US90 million per mile in 1990dollars, $US146.8 in 2008 dollars (approximately$US91 million per km in current dollars); thatwould entail a current capital cost of $A2.75billion.Depending upon the exchange rate used, thecurrent Canberra LRT capital cost estimate wouldbe in the right range.
  • LRT Costs: operating The IA submission estimates a $A1.2 billion operating cost over30 years, which is an average of $A40 million per annum. Ofcourse this operating figure would fluctuate as ridership rampedup. The IA submission posits an aggressive 50% increase inpublic transport share of total work trips over the 30 year projectperiod, from 9% in 2011, to 16% in 2028 [6, p.15]. Perhaps the Buffalo system, a 6.6 mile system serving roughly20,000 people daily might be a rough cost comparison. Zhangnotes that the 1992 operating on-street costs were $US67million (roughly $US102 million in 2008 dollars, orapproximately $A154 million). Another point of comparison isthe more successful Sacramento LRT which, in 2005, incurredtotal operating expenses of $US82.5 million or $A59.5 million in2008 dollars [9 and author calculations]. In this case the annualoperating cost estimates for Canberra LRT appear to be a biton the low side.
  • Relative burden Total ACT public expenditure in 2007-08 was $A3.1billion.The total budget for ACTION, the bus system, was$A96.5 million, with an ACT government contribution of$A59.7 million.Total boardings for the system were 16 million (in06/07), and farebox recovery amounted to 19.5%.Thus if an ACT LRT behaved like the Buffalo system interms of cost and ridership, its operating costs wouldswamp current bus expenditures and deliver half asmany riders (approximately 7.3 million, assuming 20,000riders 365 days per year).If it is more like Sacramento, it is still low but operatingcosts in any cost will be burdensome.
  • 3. The intangibles There is also the final element of operatingenvironment. Politically, Canberra is progressive and thecurrent strength of the Greens shows a strongenvironmental streak. Economically, Canberra is highly educated andwell-paid. Current transit usage rates are not particularlyhigh but service is not especially good. Perhapsimproved transit might meet a particularlyreceptive audience.
  • Conclusions Advance planning in smaller, less densecommunities, is even more critical than it might bein larger communities.Canberra has not been a particularly goodexample in that regard. Its initial proposal wasmotivated by the prospect of free capital fundingfrom the federal government: the prospect offunding seems to be wagging the LRT dogIf there had been detailed advance planning theACT government might have decided to putforward a different transit alternative altogetherand a more full-bodied transit alternatives studyremain to be done.
  •  Canberra however does demonstrate anotherpoint: LRT is not necessarily just suited for a big,dense urban area.It is possible to have sufficient densities situatedclosely enough to one another to justify an LRT.There actually has not been enough analysisdone to demonstrate definitively that Canberraoffers such a case, but the very rough sketchoffered above does show that neither can theviability of LRT be dismissed easily.In general detailed service areas need to beconducted before taking the next step of puttingforward specific transit alternative plans.
  •  Canberra is relatively unique in beingcompletely (if often imperfectly) planned.The fact that it has population centres locatedin patterns that could potentially support an LRTcorridor or other structural transit spine hasarisen in no small part because of that planning.Future planning could make the differencebetween a good viable structural alternative andbus-served sprawl.And this is a general lesson for other, similar,communities even if there is not a tradition ofmaster design templates.
  •  Finally, even for a wealthy community with awell-endowed government like the ACT, operatingcosts of LRT are perhaps more important thatcapital costs. Canberra might end up being the cautionary taleof being careful of what you wish for and ofperverse incentives of federal capital funding. No firm numbers are offered here but even for aminimalist service the ongoing fiscal burden of aCanberra LRT will be substantial and at leastequal to what the current bus service costs,delivering many fewer riders.